FCC Chairman moves the target date from 2014 to the “middle of 2015”, assures that all auctions systems will be “thoroughly tested”

Despite the FCC’s repeated insistence that it’s been on track to complete all the necessary prep work to conduct the Incentive Auction sometime in 2014, Chairman Wheeler has now taken the opportunity – in a blog posted on the FCC’s website – to throttle back that ambitious schedule. While Wheeler is less than specific about the likely timing of the auction, he is now expressing the belief that it can be held “in the middle of 2015”. 

Of course, in order to do that, the Commission will have to hit a number of milestones in terms of nitty-gritty preparation details along the way, as the Chairman acknowledges. We should get a better idea of precisely what those milestones are and when they might be met at the January, 2014 Commission meeting. That’s when the Incentive Auction Task Force is slated to make a presentation on its anticipated timeline for rolling out the auction.

The very rough roadmap sketched out by Wheeler in his blog post mentions an initial Report and Order establishing “policies” that should be ready for a Commission vote “in the spring” of next year.  That would be followed “in the second half” of 2014 by release of two public notices – an “Auction Comment Public Notice” and a “Procedures Public Notice” – designed to “provide additional details and seek comment on how the specific parts of the auction will actually function.” No other specifics (if you can call those vague references “specifics”) are laid out.

And no mention is made of possible procedural slow-downs along the way. Each of the various decisions the Commission will have to make between now and the auction – and there are bound to be a boatload of very complex decisions to be made – will theoretically be subject to reconsideration, possibly appeal, maybe even a stay. Also, the longer that any of the various components of this sprawling proceeding are out for comment, the greater the likelihood that one or another of the zillions of interested parties may come up with new or different proposals, consideration of which may engender further delay. In other words, the new target of the “middle of 2015” may still prove to be ambitious, even if the Commission meets all the milestones it currently envisions.

Perhaps sobered by the fiasco of the massively flawed roll-out of the federal government’s Obamacare website in October, the Chairman repeatedly acknowledges the absolute necessity of having all processes up and running before the auction commences. To that end, he assures us that the Commission will “check and recheck the auction software and system components against the auction requirements, and under a variety of scenarios replicating real life conditions”. And it will conduct “several software demonstrations” in addition to its routine “mock auction”. His bottom-line promise: “Only when our software and systems are technically ready, user friendly, and thoroughly tested, will we start the auction.”

Chairman Wheeler’s commitment to getting things right is reassuring, and his willingness to move the date back into 2015 seems to be a practical manifestation of that commitment. That’s good (although it’s hard to imagine that anyone realistically thought a 2014 auction was ever in the tickets). But we all have a very long way to go before the incentive auction can happen. Let’s hope that he sticks with that commitment for the duration.